A federal appeals court ruling in favor of a Virginia transgender student seeking to use school restrooms consistent with his gender identity constitutes a blow to North Carolina’s recently enacted anti-LGBT law, legal experts say.
Although the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision pertains to a school district in Virginia, the case has bearing on House Bill 2 because the court also has jurisdiction over North Carolina along with Maryland, South Carolina and West Virginia. Legal experts say the decision has the effect of rendering unenforceable the component of HB 2 that prohibits transgender students from using school restrooms consistent with their gender identity.
Upon news of the decision, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters he would “make sure these court rulings are abided to,” but would need to consult with lawyers to verify the necessary approach.
“We’ve got to evaluate the impact of this court ruling on existing legislation, on existing policy that we have throughout North Carolina, and I will do just that,” McCrory said.
McCrory added he expects more action in the form of a petition for review to the U.S. Supreme Court, but meanwhile he needs to ascertain whether the ruling requires schools to allow transgender students to use public restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, which would be contrary to House Bill 2.
“This is a major, major change in social norms not only to North Carolina, but also to the 27 other states that don’t allow this at this point in time,” McCrory said.
Signed into law last month by McCrory after an emergency session of the state legislature, HB 2 undoes all pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances in North Carolina, including one recently enacted in Charlotte, and prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in schools and government buildings consistent with their gender identity.
But at the same time this law was passed, Gavin Grimm, a transgender student at Virginia’s Gloucester County High School, was appealing before the Fourth Circuit a lower court decision affirming the right of his school district’s policy barring him from using the boys restroom or locker room.
One friend-of-the-court brief was filed by the U.S. Justice Department, which argued the policy was in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Another was filed by state leaders, including McCrory, and argued the court should rule in favor of the school district. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Grimm and remanded the case to the trial court, establishing precedent in favor of transgender students.
Douglas NeJaime, faculty director of the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, was among those saying the court decision makes unenforceable the component of HB 2 restricting bathroom use for transgender people in schools.
“The part of North Carolina’s bill that is specifically about bathrooms, or public accommodations, to the extent that they would apply to schools, which are subject to Title IX, then I think it’s suggesting in the North Carolina bill are unenforceable,” NeJaime said. “This would obviously apply to North Carolina because its in the Fourth Circuit, and the federal regulations would govern over any contrary state regulations.”
The next step in the process, NeJaime said, is for state attorneys and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has refused to defend HB 2 in court, to declare that portion of the law unenforceable. If that doesn’t happen, or if Cooper and McCrory’s attorneys disagree, NeJaime said a federal court in North Carolina would make that declaration and clarify the language cannot be enforced.
“I would guess that the ACLU and Lambda attorneys would probably quite quickly file papers and ask for an injunction just on that issue fairly quickly, but then, of course, it would be up to how quickly things can be scheduled,” NeJaime said. “I would imagine that that would move forward on an accelerated schedule.”
Neither McCrory’s office nor Cooper’s responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment late Tuesday on their determination for what the Fourth Circuit ruling means for HB 2.
Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the Fourth Circuit ruling immediately requires North Carolina to allow transgender students to use public restrooms consistent with their gender identity.
“This ruling not only gives appropriate deference to the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX as allowing transgender students to use school restrooms consistent with their gender identity, it also is binding on the state of North Carolina,” Warbelow said. “We therefore expect public schools, including those in North Carolina, to immediately comply, ensuring transgender students full protections under the law, which includes full access to the appropriate facilities.”
Legal groups — Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina — filed a lawsuit against HB 2 last month on the basis the law violates the equal protection and due process clauses under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
In a joint statement, the groups said the ruling has major implications on HB 2, but were more focused on the decision serving as an impetus for full repeal of the law.
“Today’s ruling makes plain that North Carolina’s House Bill 2 violates Title IX by discriminating against transgender students and forcing them to use the wrong restroom at school,” the statement says. “This mean-spirited law not only encourages discrimination and endangers transgender students – it puts at risk billions of dollars in federal funds that North Carolina receives for secondary and post-secondary schools. House Bill 2 exposes North Carolinians to discrimination and harm, is wreaking havoc on the state’s economy and reputation, and now more than ever, places the state’s federal education funding in jeopardy. We again call on Gov. McCrory and the General Assembly to repeal House Bill 2 and replace it with full nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.”
Despite the different focuses of the statements, Warbelow told the Washington Blade the Human Rights Campaign and legal groups behind the lawsuit are on the same page.
“There’s no daylight between us,” Warbelow said. “North Carolina schools should follow Title IX immediately as underscored by Fourth Circuit decision. There still needs to be a full repeal of HB 2 to address its broad array of harms.”
But the ruling doesn’t have any impact on the portions of HB 2 prohibiting municipalities from enacting pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances, nor does it hold sway over the part that bars transgender people from using public restrooms in government buildings consistent with their gender identity.
NeJaime pointed out the Fourth Circuit ruling is based only on Title IX, which affects only students, and makes no headway into the whether equal protection and due process under the U.S. Constitution comes into play for any issue in HB 2.
“The only issue this ruling is tackling is access that trans people have to restrooms, and so the pre-emption of local non-discrimination ordinances isn’t at all impacted by this,” NeJaime added.
The district court reviewing the litigation challenging HB 2, NeJaime said, could elect to issue a more immediate ruling on use public restrooms for transgender students, but hold off until later to make a decision on other components of the law.
Although McCrory said the Gloucester County High School may seek to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review, which could impact the result of the ruling on North Carolina, NeJaime said justices are unlikely to take action as a result of only one circuit court decision and no split among the others.
“Certainly, we saw in the marriage cases, there were cert petitions filed after preliminary injunction motions. We also saw that DOMA in litigation,” NeJaime said. “In all those cases, the court waited until there was more resolution.”